NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A new study says a specialized heart monitor now being used at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt is saving lives in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Vanderbilt was one of just five hospitals in the country asked to take part in the initial study of the Hero Monitoring System.
The study took place from 2004 to 2010, and involved 3,000 premature infants. During that time, there were 152 deaths in the group that received standard NICU care, and 122 deaths in the group that received standard NICU care plus Hero monitoring.
"We were pleasantly surprised that the results showed not only an increased ability to detect infection, but an actual decrease in death," said Dr. William Walsh, who is the medical director of Vanderbilt's NICU.
Walsh admits he was skeptical at first, but he has been turned into a believer.
The Hero System can detect when a baby is getting sick almost 24 hours earlier than ever before, giving doctors and nurses more time to administer anti-biotics.
"These babies are so fragile. Their immunity is down, and infection is a high-risk thing," he said. "The computer will look at the distance from one beat to the next and analyze each heartbeat."
The study found that early alert has effectively reduced infant mortality rates by 20 percent. For parents of premature infants, it provides peace of mind.
"It's a lot more comforting to know that if he gets an infection, they can catch it really soon," said Amanda Bowler, whose son, Conrad, was born three weeks early.
She says her eyes and ears are constantly on the monitors attached to her little boy.
"It's a really good reassurance, definitely can help you sleep a little bit easier at night," she said.
The downside to the Hero System is that it's extremely expensive. Vanderbilt got the monitors at a discounted rate for taking part in this study. Still, it will cost $60,000 each year to maintain the units now hooked up to each bed in the NICU.
Parents like Bowler say it's worth every penny.
"I'll just always glance at it. It takes a lot of stress off my mind, to know he's in a really good hospital," she said.
Right now, Vanderbilt is the only hospital in the state that has these heart monitors hooked up to every bed in the NICU. That's expected to soon change, as hospitals across the country hop onboard.